Read Alison Blackwell’s self-published graphic novel Hungry Ghost, and you might find your head swimming – in a good way. The main character Carey is anorexic, artistic, funny, and, at times, chillingly self-loathing. Fresh out of rehab, she befriends an 11-year-old girl she mentors while a serial killer looms in the background. The gripping thriller deals with a number of serious topics through the frame of a simple plot line. But, what creator Alison really wants the reader to know is that these characters are more than just their problems. They’re multidimensional.
In Hungry Ghost, you’ll find familiar sprawls of the East Side – a hilltop view of downtown and panels of the RISD Museum. Alison explicitly states that these characters bare no resemblance to people in her life, but aspects of the setting, plot, and characterizations are based on her real-life experiences.
Alison graduated from RISD in 2007, right before the housing bubble burst. Riddled with anxiety and the overwhelming reality of being an artist in a challenging job market, she leaned fully into an eating disorder. “I really spiraled super hard, and was just like, ‘There’s nothing special about me, I don’t matter.’” In the book, Carey too grapples with anorexia, but her mental illness is a subplot, not the plot, a decision the author made deliberately.
When mental health is discussed in most media, a character’s struggle becomes their defining trait. Having battled an eating disorder herself, this representation was something Alison wanted to avoid. “I had read a lot of books about eating disorders and stuff but it’s just like, the entire plot is the eating disorder, and you don’t actually really understand a lot about the person doing it, other than that they have an eating disorder.”
Readers will note that there is much more to Carey’s characterization than anorexia. She is funny, often inappropriately bantering with mentee, Alanna. She’s deeply troubled, misunderstood, and vulnerable, yet she yearns to express herself. Beyond Carey’s misfortunes, both Alanna and Henry have “ghosts” and tribulations of their own.
Hungry Ghost is the first installment of this graphic thriller series. Currently, Alison is working on the second book, which she anticipates will be finished in the next year-and-a-half. You can find Hungry Ghost at Books on the Square in Providence and Rah-Coco’s Collectibles and Stillwater Books in Pawtucket. Read a portion here.